First of all, this post, finally, contains the “money quote” found in the overall title of this series: “Forsaking Christ to follow Plato“. For anyone who has been wondering. Also, here are links to the first two posts: Part One, Part Two.
This third installment in the “Forsaking Christ to follow Plato” series is definitely on the rangy side. But it’s not my fault, honest. Blame Anthony Kaldellis (and/or Leo Strauss). Kaldellis insists on embedding his own very problematic views on late antique Platonism deeply inside of his overall analysis of Michael Psellos, whom he correctly identifies as a Platonist whose Platonism is incompatible with Christianity. Kaldellis wants to put as much distance as possible between Psellos, as a genuine Platonist, and the horse-shit dressed-up like Platonism that “mystical” Christians have been trying to pass off as the real thing ever since pseudo-Dionysos. The problem, at least according to my reading, is that Kaldellis fails to recognize that a clear bright line can, indeed must, be drawn between the Christian pseudo-platonists, a la pseudo-Dionysos, and the genuine late-antique Pagan Platonists, a la Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, Proclus, Damascius, Simplicius, usw.
Now, before going any further, here is another thumbnail biography of Psellos, this one from Anthony Kaldellis’ Hellenism in Byzantium: the transformations of Greek identity and the reception of the classical tradition:
“Konstantinos Psellos was born in 1018 in Constantinople to a middle-class family, at a time when the empire was at the peak of its power [during the reign of Emperor Basel II, who ruled from 976-1025]. He acquired a superb education and began to serve as a secretary for high officials, eventually acquiring a post at the court. His rhetorical skill and personal charm brought him to the attention of Konstantinos IX Monomarchos (1042-1055), who employed him as an official spokesman (as would all emperors thereafter). At the same time, he was privately teaching philosophy, science, and rhetoric, while his friend Ionnes Xiphilinos taught law. Monomachos was soon persuaded to reform education in the capital, founding two new departments, one of law under Xiphilinos and one of philosophy under Psellos, who took the title “Consul of the Philosophers” [the title later passed on to John Italos].
By the early 1050s Psellos’ circle was losing power at the court. His friends were fleeing the capital, some of them becoming monks. He himself was accused of harboring non-Christian beliefs and was required to produce a confession of orthodoxy. With the ascendancy of the ambitious patriarch Keroularios, Psellos decided to leave and become a monk in Bythnia (under the name Michael). But Monomachos soon died and Psellos hated the monastic life, so this retreat lasted less than a year. In 1056 he was back in Constantinople, teaching, writing, and still playing politics. He was soon allied with the Doukas family, which came to the throne in 1059. Psellos advised the emperor Konstantinos X and tutored his son, who later reigned as Michael VII (1071-1078). But first Psellos has to weather the years of Romanos IV Diogenes (1067-1071), who tried to reverse years of military decline, and finally suffered a disastrous defeat at Manzikert (1071). Psellos was among those who supported Romanos’ vicious blinding [see this lovely wikipedia article on “Political mutilation in Byzantine culture
” for background], but the regime of his protégé Michael VII proved disastrous, bringing Byzantium to the verge of total defeat. Even Psellos lost favor at court during the 1070s, and must have died at some point during that decade. While brilliant as an orator, historian, scholar, and teacher, Psellos’ political activity has been characterized as unscrupulous and he has been personally accused of contributing to the decline of Byzantium during the eleventh century.”
[Hellenism in Byzantium
, Anthony Kaldellis pp. 192-193]
In a different work, and the one which will be our main focus in this post, Kaldellis provides the following account of how Psellos came into conflict with Christianity because of his Platonic philosophizing. (This is from Kaldellis’, The Argument of Psellos’ Chronographia):
“Contrary to scholarly consensus, I argue that Psellos was a serious philosopher rather than a mere polymath or intellectual dilettante, and that he used his considerable rhetorical skills to disguise the revolutionary nature of his political thought, which was consciously anti-Christian and deeply influenced in some respects by the political philosophy of Plato. This book is therefore, a contribution to the history of Platonism. But which Platonism, and which Plato? We must begin with a digression.
The currently dominant view of Plato in the English-speaking world has been created largely by academic historians of ancient philosophy, who are not themselves philosophers. These scholars, including A.E. Taylor, W.K.C. Guthrie, Gregory Vlastos, and many others, interpret philosophical texts by employing modern tools of analysis in order to determine that validity of their arguments. Thus the dialogues are combed for discussions on particular topics which are then extracted from their dramatic and literary context and transformed into formal arguments. These are always taken at face value, subjected to rigorous logical analysis, and, more often than not, found to be false or invalid. According to Terrence Irwin, “much of what [Plato] says is false, and much more is confused, vague, inconclusive, and badly defended.” While the approach that Irwin represents has taught us something about the logical structure of Plato’s arguments, it has seriously misrepresented the great philosopher’s thought.”
And this point Kaldellis is still just getting warmed up with his “digression”. A couple pages later he manages to come back around to what is, at least as far as I am concerned, the real crux of the biscuit:
[T]here is room for substantial disagreement about the broad nature of Plato’s philosophy. Although this statement is not controversial in itself, its implications constitute a serious challenge to the fundamental presuppositions of most Platonic scholarship. Avid Platonists can perhaps disbelieve that the life of philosophy involves the rejection of the senses, that the soul is immortal, or that metaphysics and ontology take precedence over ethics and politics, and yet still be closer to their master’s teachings than are those who accept such positions.
Psellos explicitly identified himself as a Platonist. It is clear from many of his writings that he had studied Plato carefully and had an intimate and thorough knowledge of the dialogues … Instances where he praises [Plato] can be adduced at will, but a single event reveals the intensity of Psellos’ allegiance. In 1054 he was accused by his erstwhile friend, the future Patriarch John Xiphilinos, of forsaking Christ to follow Plato. Plato had no illusions about the seriousness of the charge: ‘you have separated me from Christ and enrolled me among the followers of Plato.’ Psellos realized that, according to Xiphilinos, devotion to Plato was equivalent to a renunciation of Christian Orthodoxy …. Of course, Psellos … claim[ed] that Plato’s teaching was ultimately compatible with the Christian faith, a claim that is nevertheless hardly supported by the meager evidence presented in his letter [to Xiphilinos].”
Kaldellis is simultaneously putting forward two different (but not unrelated) arguments concerning Psellos’ Platonism, or, to be more precise (in terms of what Kaldellis himself claims), concerning Platonism itself: (1) On the one hand Platonism, according to Kaldellis, is inherently incompatible with Christianity. (2) On the other hand, Platonism, at least properly understood, as it was (again, according to Kaldellis) by Psellos, is fundamentally a political philosophy.
Two very important subsidiary arguments are involved in Kaldellis’ position: (3) the first being that genuine Platonism is a very different thing from the mystical speculations (as Kaldellis sees them) of the late antique Platonists from Plotinus to Simplicius (so-called “Neoplatonism”, a term that Kaldellis crudely misuses in the most blindingly uncritical and anachronistic fashion), and (4) that “Christianity” can be viewed, like Platonism, as fundamentally a political philosophy (which at least in the context of an unabashedly theocratic Christian state like Byzantium is perfectly reasonable).
At the risk of repetitiveness, let me present these assumptions again more schematically, along with one more assertion that Kaldellis snuck in along the way:
- Platonism is incompatible with Christianity.
- Platonism is a political philosophy.
- Late antique Neoplatonism is a mystical philosophy fundamentally different from the genuine philosophy of Plato.
- Christianity is a political philosophy.
- The following three ideas are extraneous to Platonism itself, although they are misrepresented as essentially Platonic by “most” modern Platonic scholarship: (i) the rejection of the senses (ii) the immortality of the soul (iii) the precedence of metaphysics and ontology over ethics and politics.
One thing that becomes clear when these are spelled out like this is that 1, 2, and 4 are closely related to one another, while 3 and 5 are essentially independent of the other three, and are even arguably extraneous.
If we take 1 and 2 above as the core of Kaldellis’ main argument, then of the other three points, only number 4 is intrinsic to this main argument, which revolves around making as sharp a division as possible between Platonism and Christianity as mutually exclusive world-views. The reason why position 4 is important to the main argument is that if Christianity and Platonism are both seen as primarily political/ethical in nature then the counterposition of the two is made that much neater and cleaner. To put it very crudely, Kaldellis wishes to compare apples with apples, that is, he is saying that both Christianity and Platonism are apples, with Christianity being a rotten apple not fit to eat, and Platonism being a nice, fresh, ripe apple. But if Platonism is primarily political/ethical, while Christianity is not, then we are left with apples and oranges.
However, the nature of late antique Platonism (that of Plotinus and so forth), and its relationship to Christianity, especially those Christianizing appropriations of Platonism emanating from the “teachings” of pseudo-Dionysos, is a separate, or at least a separable, issue.
That is to say, first of all, one set of positions (1, 2 and 4) comprise a single, coherent argument: Platonism and Christianity are mutually incompatible political philosophies. Secondly, the other two assumptions (3 and 5) comprise an independent argument about the nature of Platonism vis-a-vis so-called Neoplatonism: Platonism is a truly Humanist philosophy of life-as it-is-actually-lived, while Neoplatonism is a bunch of theistical/metaphysical mumbo-jumbo which tends to steer one away from a life of action and engagement with one’s fellow human beings and with “the world”. The interested reader can look here and here for more of my thoughts on where Kaldellis goes wrong in his analysis of late antique Platonism.
It is certainly possible that Kaldellis’ treatment of late antique Platonism has not been properly understood by me, and that there are important parts of his overall argument that I fail to grasp. However, it does appear to me, as of now, that Kaldellis is perpetuating a central tenet of Christian apologetics, namely the Eusebian “strategy of breaking the ‘golden chain’ and the ‘sacred genealogy’ of Plato’s disciples,” as Niketas Siniossoglou puts it in his monograph on the subject of the Christian appropriation of Platonic philosophy. Indeed, Siniossolgou’s description of this apologetic strategy sounds almost as if he were talking about Kaldellis: “This [strategy] consisted in presenting the philosophical theology of Hellenes in late antiquity as alienated from Plato’s philosophy. Eusebius argued at length that with few exceptions Plato’s disciples distorted the philosophy of their master and introduced sophisms and innovations.” For more on Siniossoglou see this previous post concerning his book Plato and Theodoret.
Kaldellis’ analysis of Psellos demonstrates that it is possible to make a strong case for Psellos as an anti-Christian Hellene, that is, a Pagan, even if one does not approach Psellos as part of a ‘sacred geneology’ comprising a (more or less) continuous spiritual movement of Platonic Paganism, the so-called ‘golden chain’, that connects Psellos not only to Plotinus and Porphyry and Iamblichus and Proclus, but also to Cicero and Vergil and Ficino and Agrippa.
Best of all, and to end this post on a high note, Kaldellis also provides us with a wonderfully withering deconstruction of the theory of Psellos-as-sincere-Christian, as seen in the following long excerpt from The Argument of Psellos’ Chronographia:
Although there are a few exceptions, modern historians interested in Psellos’ philosophical and religious beliefs tend to draw their conclusions on the basis of selected passages or brief quotations. His works are ransacked for allegedly representative declarations on topics that scholars consider important. These are then stitched together and presented as ‘Psellos’ world-view’. This cut-and-paste approach rarely takes the original context of the quotations into consideration, for it assumes that since Psellos wrote the words, he must have believed them to be true. Like the declarations of a religious creed, or that arguments of a modern scholarly monograph, his various statements are taken at face value, though exceptions are occasionally made for the obvious exaggerations of his rhetorical compositions, and his sarcastic treatment of contemporary individuals. But in general, the individual nature of each text and the unique context of any statements it may contain are completely disregarded. This is exemplified and reinforced by the reprehensible, yet pervasive practice of citing passages by the page number of the most recent edition, even if it is a massive compilation containing dozens or even hundreds of separate texts. Readers are apparently not supposed to care what kind of work is being cited or what the context of a particular passage is.
An example of the inevitable results of such scholarly exegesis can be found in the prestigious and widely used Pauly-Wissowa … Realencyclopädie
. The author of the long article on Michael Psellos, E. Kriaras, does not hesitate to ascribe the most glaring contradictions to the Byzantine thinker, for example concerning the relationship between rhetoric and philosophy, or Christianity and Greek philosophy. We learn in the space of a few pages that Psellos believed that Greek philosophy had value independently of Christianity and
that it was valuable only insofar as it prepared the ground for Chrisitanity; that rhetoric was philosophy’s equal and
that he despised it because it did not seek the truth. Kriaras does not attempt to explain or resolve these blatant contradictions, which are produced by juxtaposing quotations taken from different works. We are not told whom Psellos is addressing in each case, nor under what circumstances each work was composed. Consequently, Psellos emerges as a man utterly confused about the most basic principles of those disciplines to which he had devoted his life.
An article in modern Greek, entitled ‘The Theological Thoughts of Michael Psellos’, illustrates the arbitrariness of prevailing hermeneutical methods. The author, D. Koutsogiannopoulos, promises to resolve some of the apparent contradictions in Psellos’ thought. Yet in order to do so, he simply postulates that Psellos was fundamentally a Christian, and even claims that ‘Psellos, of course, could not follow every aspect of Proklos’ dialectical derivations; this was due to the unsurpassable obstacle posed by the Christian source of his own philosophical thought.’ The author, of course, would hardly countenance the suggestion that the same might be true of a modern
Christian scholar of Neoplatonism, including, perhaps, himself. However that may be, he believes that one can derive Psellos’ personal theological beliefs from a single work ‘alone,’ the De Omnifaria Doctrina
. This work is a series of conceptual definitions and discussions on religious, philosophical, and scientific topics, which range from the nature of God to the reason why sea water is salty. This work does suggest that Psellos was a believing Christian, albeit an intellectually sophisticated one. But the crucial fact that it was composed for the benefit of Psellos’ imperial protege, Michael Doukas, who was emperor from 1071 to 1078, is never mentioned in the article.
The possibility is never considered that a direct exposition of doctrinal principles before a member of the Empire’s ruling family may not necessarily express its authors genuine views. But it takes only a moment’s reflection to realize that even if Psellos were not a Christian, he would stil have to pretend that he was. His very circumstances would have compelled him to conceal or disguise his true beliefs. After all, he had a highly prestigious career, and was at varioius times director of the schools of higher education in the Capital, tutor of the heir to the throne, and intimate advisor to several Emperors. We cannot expect a man of such public prominence, if he had a shred of prudence in him, to reveal his lack of faith openly before his rather intolerant contemporaries. And he would certainly have declared himself an Orthodox Christian, especially when the sincerity of his faith was challenged. ‘One will be able to do justice to the question of a Byzantine author of the eleventh century, only if one takes into account that he could never overstep the limits imposed by Orthodoxy without seriously endangering himself.’ [Here Kaldellis is quoting from Die hochsprachliche profane Literatur der Byzantiner by the noted Austrian Byzantinist Herbert Hunger.] In other words, just because a medieval philosopher publicly presents himself as a Christian does not automatically mean that he was one. In an age of religious persecution and enforced orthodoxy, dissimulation was often a necessary strategy for survival.
The desire to wield influence at court, not to mention the fear of punishment or exile, can explain why Psellos’ treatment of sensitive religious matters was occasionally conventional (which the De Omnifaria Doctrina
really is not). At hte very least, he had to respect the opinions of his masters, but, as has rightly been pointed out, ‘to respect opinions is something entirely different from accepting them as true.’ [Here Kaldellis is quoting from Leo Straus’ What is Politica Philosophy? and Other Studies.]
Thus we cannot simply assume that the De Omnifaria Doctrina
reveal Psellos’ true beliefs. The need for such caution is confirmed by the existence of a curious discrepency between a crucial statement in that text and a comment on the same topic in the Chronographia
. In the final section of the De Omnifaria Doctrina
(201), Psellos claims that its teachings represent a combination of Christian doctrine and ‘those salty waters, I mean Hellenic thought.’ But in the Chronographia
, near the conclusion of its central autobiographical passage (6.42.16), Psellos explicitly compares the texts of ancient rhetoric and philosophy to νᾶμα, which ordinarily refers to the clear running water of a spring. He there claims that his revival of genuine philosophy was based entirely on the teachings of non-Christian antiquity. [Actually, and I really cannot resist interjecting at this point, Psellos explicitly tells us that he relies very heavily on the teachings of non-Christian philosophers of late
antiquity, in other words, precisely those other-worldly “neo-” Platonists!] The apparent disagreement between these two passages is significant, regardless of the fact that they are both couched in metaphorical language. We must, in this connection, be prepared to interpret images as well as words, and on this crucial issue the image of the De Omnifaria Doctrina
and the Chronographia
are fundamentally at odds with each other.
What if for every statement that seems to establish the sincerity of Psellos’ Christian faith, we could find another that seems to undermine it? For instance, in his apologetic Letter to Xiphilinos (lines 11-19), Psellos says that although he had read many non-Christian books, he had found them all to be corrupt and inferior to Scripture, which alone is entirely pure and reliable. Yet, in one of his letters, he instructed his students not to believe anything written by Moses and not to dismiss every aspect of Hellenic, i.e., pagan, theology. This is an astonishing statement for a thinker of his age (it would be centuries before similar ideas were pursued seriously in the West). We are thus faced with a conventional affirmation of the perfection of Scripture, and a revolutionary attempt to establish a relative neutrality between it and Hellenic theology, which inevitably calls for the creation of an independent, i.e., non-Scriptural, method of adjudicating theological truth. Perhaps we now have at least some tentative grounds on which to question the sincerity of Psellos’ faith, for ‘when an author living in an age when people are persecuted for heterodoxy expresses contradictory sentiments regarding religion, the buden of proof … lies with those who would uphold the author’s piety.’
[The closing quote is from D.L. Schaefer, The Political Philosophy of Montaigne, p. 42, n.5, summarizing an argument by A. Armaingaud.]
Forsaking Christ to Follow Plato (Or, Was Michael Psellos a Christian?)
- Part One: Mostly Basil Tatakis’ Byzantine Philosophy, with a little help from Jaroslav Pelikan, Katerina Ierandiokonou, John Myendorff, and even C.M. Woodhouse
- Part Two: N.G. Wilson’s Scholars of Byzantium
- Part Three: Athony Kaldellis’ The Argument of Psellos’ Chronographia (this is the post you are reading right now)
- Part Four: Michael Psellos and the Chaldean Oracles